Should English Class include More Science Reading?

John Hawks points out that the majority of High School English Classes are devoid of any serious selections from non-fiction:

I want to point out something else: scientific writing of the 1800’s (and I would add the 1700’s to this) is still broadly relevant today. Thoreau is often taught in high school, in a relatively uninteresting manner. I think we should work to integrate the literature and science portions of the curriculum. Sure, there’s a place for Oscar Wilde, but time spent on Dickens, or even Shakespeare, might profitably be given to Darwin. Think of Darwin’s work as a letter-writer, for instance: a selection of letters and some passages from Voyage of the Beagle may not surpass Jane Austen, but they may give a fuller perspective of the history and life of the period, outside the confines of parlor society. Emerson and Thoreau are standards in American literature surveys, but why not change the emphasis to the mid-to-late-19th-century awareness of the environment, dump Emerson, put in some of Thoreau’s lesser-known work, and add in John Muir?

Kids are not going to read too much, so change the reading list to things that will integrate different fields of study. That certainly would add more to the comprehension of literature, and would appeal to many kids who will never be reached by Henry James or Charlotte Bronté.

I’m not sure I’d get rid of Shakespeare. But, I see his point. There are a ton of great non-fiction works that are well written, engrossing, and have the potential to teach students about science-subjects in a way that isn’t so “sciency”. That’s a good thing, since most kids aren’t gonna take much, if any, science in College.

Science writing in the early period (1500’s to the early 20’th century) was quite different than it is today. And by different, I mean better! It was more eloquent, literary, and passionate. Somewhere over the course of the last century science writing has lost all of that and become some of the most drab junk in print. The content is still there, but the rhetoric leaves a lot to be desired.

A few other graduate students and I have regularly complained about the poor state of science writing for scientists (most particularly in science journals). Terse, man, terse. Getting young students to associate science with passionate prose is a great idea that might spawn a whole new generation of scientists who actually care about how their article “sounds”. Of course, then you’d have to convince the publishers to publish it!

In the modern period, we’ve had a number of great popular science writers like Stephen J. Gould, Richard Dawkins, etc. But, popular science writing didn’t begin in the 20th Century.  It has been around a long time. And some of it is fantastic.

Here’s an example of a good 19th Century piece of writing by Darwin himself in this famous last paragraph of the Origin of Species:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

Whoo Baby! That’s what I’m talking about. Nearly sounds like Joseph Conrad.


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